There were quite a few of us, not quite enough for there to be too many or so many, but we were treated like an uncontrollable mass. Nobody was one body, we were items grouped into two types; There were The Dancers and the Background, but it soon transpired the Background were also dancers, only myself and a few wet-palmed others were definitely Not Dancers. But two groups was easier than two-and-a-bit, so our out-of-time faction was amalgamated into a lithe, energetic majority of ‘Background Dancers’.
We sat slumped in Argos-collection-point listlessness, waiting to be called up and fitted and made-up and brushed and time-travelled back to 1930’s America.
‘Short Hair’, to your correction point please.
I had the perfect hair-do from the front, which was my ticket into this particular shoot, but from the back I was a 21st Century Tom-Boy and that would not do. Juan sat me down and wordlessly consulted the hair which grew through my scalp, then formally introduced it to hair that had once grown through someone else’s scalp, but now lived in a box, plaited and disembodied.
The wig was not the same colour match and having so little of my own at the back, had very little to be attached to. Juan did his best to fasten it instead to the thin skin that stretched across my skull and knew with every wince and gasp that he was doing a job well done.
“I’ll take this one.” I was being gesticulated at by a Man in a Hurry, which meant stand up and follow. “I haven’t been…” I waved at my face, “I don’t have make-up,” said my normal sized mouth to the Man in a Hurry. He looked at my face, then at the mass of Others and then back at my face but never at me. He then chose someone else in a similar coloured dress and left with her instead. Shortly after I was then called to have my face corrected and my eyelashes darkened and my mouth made to look bigger and redder, which is more attractive and better to time-travel into the 1930’s America with.
A long time passed because being a part of an advert or a TV show or film (and not being a part of the crew) means there is a lot of time spent immovably travelling between moments of significance. Like the universe, there are a lot of exciting pretty things to see but most of it is nothing.
There was a human-shaped ball of energy in the Dance Hall. I couldn’t imagine her reading a novel or napping and she would definitely live forever. She bounded around the room and produced electricity which brightened the lights and powered the people who were not already powered by cynicism and embarrassment. Every movement she made was choreographed and with such precision as to make the muscles that already bulged through her lycra, sing and strain for attention. I envied and despaired. I was embarrassed behind my cynicism. I then had to dance.
I don’t dance.
December 2011 saw myself and the HR and Customer Service team dressed up in 1980’s garb, attending a 1980’s themed dinner and disco party. I had bought a Vintage Dress and someone had kindly curled my hair, painted my nails and pasted my face with lurid colours.
The dinner easily could have been served on a plane but the company was very pleasant and the atmosphere of pre-christmas celebration, infectious. Fuelled by double Gin & Tonics and surrounded by non-threatening mumsie types, I took to the dance floor and gyrated with the rest. I joked and flailed and danced in accordance with the era- with my shoulders and elbows. It was amusing and I enjoyed the laughter, then when I returned to swaying to the music in my default setting, and the laughing continued, I was slightly unnerved by not entirely devastated. From that point on I felt I could, for short bursts, in an ironic way, comfortably dance with others but never seriously, it was never called dancing… bopping, shuffling, having a boogy but never ‘Dancing’.
“My hair has fallen off!” I whimpered to the makeup lady back in 1930’s America. The sweat from my head had loosed all the sharp pins and left my syrup hanging off like a botched execution. The sweat from my body had soaked through my dress too, my £200 a day, hired for 10 days, authentic, straw-coloured, 1930’s dress. The sweat had left me thirsty and blinded and shocked that it was possible for so much liquid to escape through seemingly watertight skin.
I had been dancing, with ascending energy for what must have been at least one or two broken up hours and I was ready to drop along with my wig. What had not dropped was my on-going horror that I was being Made to Dance and Made to Dance on a production that would be seen by millions too. And not just by myself, I had to dance with another non-dancing extra, who was interesting and handsome and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself. “Having fun yet?” he panted through the big-band swing sounds, his once slicked-back hair vying for an energetic breakdance solo.
He did not seem to be so surprised by the bodily water, and was neither impressed not amused by my sweat-related narration. This would not be a story to tell our grand-children.
Time passed and the dancing continued and nothing changed. The dancers, the people who were there to dance officially, loved every moment and were far sweatier than me and yet still had such spark, even after hours of flipping and lifting and jumping and lightning-fast footwork, they still had energy and they selflessly gave their energy to us. We, who were there to move very little or to walk a bit or have nonsensical silent conversations with one another and who were Not There To Dance were flagging dangerously. After 4 or 5 hours of on-off wild dancing in the background, the cameras had now turned on us and no amount of stern direction could hide the fact we were not Overwhelmed with Jubilation by the Amazing Music as Out of Control Live-Wires of Raw Dance Energy. We were tired and sweaty.
So the dancers who had been making magic with their bodies and a mockery of gravity, left their moment of rest to altruistically join us off camera to jive and clap us along, to transfer their unquashable spirits and give energy to the apathetic. I jived and bopped and grinned and grimaced and hated them all passionately.
The night ended slowly in a cruel sputter. After the dancing it was time to go home, but we had signed contracts that meant we would not be paid over-time if we went into it, so naturally had to stay and stay for no more pay.
Inside had been a sauna and outside was a refreshing dunk into the north sea. And then it was just an on going coldness with all the dance-sweat transformed into frigid, prying fingers. I longed to be inside the noisy hotbox again.
I was an extra, finally, and as an extra I expertly walked up and down and mimed impassioned conversations about the alphabet, different vegetables and the lyrics to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, all the while wincing from the pain in my feet which had been jammed in beautiful 30’s high heels for 14 hours.
There was more walking and miming then some quick Biscuits for Energy and then suddenly it really was time to go home. Fishies free from the net we wriggled off into the night. Half transformed time travellers, 1930’s hollow eyed Americans from the neck up and Regular Joes below.
I did not see my dance partner again, I wanted to apologise about my incessant lamentation of being Made to Dance and the vocalised discovery of my in-tights paddling pool. I wanted to let him know that I had no professional or personal objection to holding his hand while we danced other than I could barely balance with two arms to windmill. And lastly, that although I had rolled my eyes and gurned when he asked whether I was enjoying it yet, that yes, secretly, there was a bit of me revelling in the weird performance and live-wire gyration as a nobody in a sweating, dancing One Body organism.
But I still Don’t Dance.